They were laughing.
Outside, Tropical Storm Harvey was causing an unprecedented regional weather calamity and prompting a vast search and rescue effort still underway days later.
As the 15 residents of La Vita Bella sat in their activity room early Sunday morning — the room where they play games, listen to big-band music and eat popcorn — they joked and laughed, even as floodwater quickly rose about their ankles, and then their waists.
What else could they do, asked Trudy Lampson, owner of the Dickinson assisted living facility and caretaker of the group.
“My ladies actually were really good,” Lampson said in a phone interview with The Daily News on Monday. “It was happy. It was funny. You had to laugh, because if you didn’t laugh you’d have to stand there and cry.”
Lampson said she wasn’t at La Vita Bella when her staff first called about water bubbling up out of a toilet. She told the staff to watch its progress.
When water started coming in the back door about 3 a.m., she drove through torrential rain to get to the house that her own mother had called home for 15 years, until her death four months ago, Lampson said.
The residents were moved, one by one, to the living room of the one-story house on Oak Drive, and the water rose, she said. Some were placed on mattresses and floated as the water got deeper. Lampson, her husband and three caretakers stayed with the residents the whole time, she said.
Furniture and boxes of cat food began to float around them, she said.
“It was awful,” Lampson said.
The water was warm, but the women got cold. Despite the circumstances, she said the women laughed and joked and talked throughout the ordeal.
During the flood, the employees called 911, imploring rescuers for help, Lampson said. She called her out-of-state children, and they put out more calls. She was pretty sure someone tried to call the White House, she said.
At about 9 a.m., Lampson sent daughter, Kimberly, a picture of the women sitting in the water.
The photo has become one of the indelible images of Hurricane Harvey, and has been shared worldwide. It first gained attention after Lampson’s son-in-law, Tim McIntosh, who lives in Florida, shared the photo on Twitter asking for help.
It went viral quickly, eventually reaching the eyes of some reporters. By the time the image was confirmed as authentic by an emergency official in Dickinson, La Vita Bella had been evacuated.
Rescue came in a boat and two trucks. The boat was driven by one of the resident’s sons, a local minister.
The trucks were from the Texas National Guard.
On Sunday, Dickinson officials said the group was rescued by a helicopter. Dickinson Emergency Operations Manager David Popoff corrected himself Monday, saying at the time of the group’s evacuation he saw a helicopter hovering in their general location and assumed it was performing a rescue.
The women who live in house range from age 59 to 99. Some of them have neurological and memory loss conditions. The women live in “boutique” accommodations, Lampson said, and get one-on-one care from the staff.
“They bring their knickknacks and they can decorate their rooms how they want,” she said. “It’s like grandma’s house.”
La Vita Bella has an evacuation plan, Lampson said, and the residents had evacuated during both hurricanes Ike and Rita. She had heard the calls for a voluntary evacuation of Dickinson on Thursday, more than 48 hours before the historically heavy rains began falling on the northern parts of Galveston County.
But after consulting with the Texas Department of Aging and Disability Services, she decided not to flee the city, she said.
A department spokesperson could not immediately confirm Lampson’s statement.
“We collect that information from a regulatory standpoint and follow up with them as the storm goes on,” said Carrie Williams, in an email to The Daily News. “As the state licensing agency, we don’t have the role of instructing or ordering facilities to evacuate. We urge everyone to follow local warnings.”
Popoff, the city’s emergency manager, said he was upset the residents were not evacuated when the voluntary call went out. The residents seemingly meet the criteria of those warned to leave before the storm. They had medical and mobility issues and were in a low-lying area.
“That concerns me,” he said.
Lampson said that on Saturday evening, before the heaviest rains began, she consulted with emergency management officials. By that time, they told her to shelter in place, instead of evacuating, she said.
The building had not flooded during past storms, Lampson said. Despite the forecasts, which initially called for up to 30 inches over five days, she didn’t think the rainfall would put anybody at risk. Then Harvey dropped more than 20 inches of rain on parts of Galveston County in a matter of hours.
“We’ve never been flooded in all the years I’ve owned it,” she said. “I’ve never had a problem. We’ve had a problem with the hurricanes coming through, and we get out of there real fast.
“This was ‘shelter in place’ no problem”
In hindsight, Lampson said she would have done things differently.
“The world has changed,” she said. “The weather has changed. I’d definitely do it different.”
Lampson is staying with her residents at an assisted living home in Alvin for the time being. Four of the residents were taken to local hospitals, she said. The group is being well taken care of, she said, and doesn’t have any immediate need for donations.
On Monday, her husband returned to La Vita Bella to retrieve the home’s other residents: a group of cats and chickens that had to be left behind during the evacuation. They’re all safe now, she said.